On this day in 1961, the British newspaper The London Observer
publishes British lawyer Peter Benenson's article "The Forgotten
Prisoners" on its front page, launching the Appeal for Amnesty 1961--a
campaign calling for the release of all people imprisoned in various
parts of the world because of the peaceful expression of their
Benenson was inspired to write the appeal after reading an article
about two Portuguese students who were jailed after raising their
glasses in a toast to freedom in a public restaurant. At the time,
Portugal was a dictatorship ruled by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
Outraged, Benenson penned the Observer article making the case for the
students' release and urging readers to write letters of protest to
the Portuguese government. The article also drew attention to the
variety of human rights violations taking place around the world, and
coined the term "prisoners of conscience" to describe "any person who
is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from
expressing…any opinion which he honestly holds and does not advocate
or condone personal violence."
"The Forgotten Prisoners" was soon reprinted in newspapers across the
globe, and Berenson's amnesty campaign received hundreds of offers of
support. In July, delegates from Belgium, the United Kingdom, France,
the United States, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland met to begin "a
permanent international movement in defense of freedom of opinion and
religion." The following year, this movement would officially become
the human rights organization Amnesty International.
Amnesty International took its mandate from the United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which holds that all people
have fundamental rights that transcend national, cultural, religious
and ideological boundaries. By the 10th anniversary of the Appeal for
Amnesty 1961, the organization it spawned numbered over 1,000
voluntary groups in 28 countries, with those figures rising steadily.
In 1977, the organization received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Amnesty International owes much of its success in promoting human
rights to its impartiality and its focus on individuals rather than
political systems. Today, Amnesty International continues to work
toward its goals of ensuring prompt and fair trials for all prisoners,
ending torture and capital punishment and securing the release of
"prisoners of conscience" around the globe.
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1991 : Ethiopian capital falls to rebels
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